Photo by Laura Heath

"It was not really a comfortable situation," said Brooks Strause. "It was okay. It worked well, and it was worth it artistically."

Such dull words suggest a mundane departure for a musician - an experimental song, the dipping of a toe into a new stylistic stream. But Strause - the prolific 34-year-old singer/songwriter from Muscatine now based in Iowa City - is not nearly so timid.

He was, in fact, talking about having a bucket of actual lamb's blood dumped on him for a photo shoot for his second album. Differences in animal aside, Strause volunteered to be Carrie White - and it was his idea.

In that photo, Strause is foregrounded and exhaling smoke, with a couple clutching each other in the background. The concept, he said, "represented love in a way I haven't seen it represented that much," which made it a good match for the Strause-ian love songs that made up his album Dead Animals (whose first release was housed, it should be said, in actual animal fur).

In case you're curious, Strause said "there wasn't really time" for second thoughts at the shoot: "This photograph has to get done. Let's do it." And "it was kind of surprising - the texture. I definitely got some in my mouth very quickly. It wasn't really as gross as I thought it was going to be."

So he's human after all - although that's not necessarily apparent from the flood of work he's been producing. His seventh album, the richly rewarding The Chymical Wedding of Brooks Strause, was released this month, and he'll be performing October 23 at Rozz-Tox. Dead Animals was reissued earlier this year by the Maximum Ames label, and 2014 saw two new full-lengths, Acid Casual and Renaissance Beast.

Oh, but there's more. He has a rock/folk opera, an album of electronic music, and a solo-acoustic record in various stages of completion, and he's written all the songs for his next rock-and-roll outing with his band The Gory Details - with whom he'll share the stage at Rozz-Tox.

Strause offered a simple reason for this burst of creativity: time. He works home-health-care overnight shifts that give him plenty of time to sleep, leaving his days free for music. And "I had been solidly in relationships for 10 years. I've spent a lot of the last three years single, which is artistically fruitful, and spiritually. That just helps me focus on my own work and myself as a human being."

But there's clearly also a restless spirit at work, somebody eager to bust through constraints and connect wildly disparate influences. Each album might have its own coherence and clear reference points, but Strause said his careening body of work has a shape - in a hugely ambitious way.

He gave the example of his in-the-works electronic album mining '80s and '90s sounds. "Being able to introduce that ... gives more context to the things on my previous records that were influenced by '20s ragtime," he explained. "I feel like musically I just want to bridge all these things. I want to find something that hasn't been done in the whole context of modern music history. ...

"I realized that I have been exploring classic styles - world styles - and the further I push out, the more it makes sense. It's a bigger picture, which makes it a little clearer as I branch out ... ."

Last year's Renaissance Beast, he said, was "the record where I really took control of pushing out of those boundaries and deciding that the further I could go, the more all-encompassing I can be stylistically ... . If you create a context, then you can do anything you want. Creating a precedent for any sound to be present."

Photo by Laura Heath

Ceding Control

The irony of the new album, however, is that Strause gave up the reins. Prior to now, Strause had produced five of his records and co-produced the other.

But on Chymical Wedding, Quad Cities producer and musician Pat Stolley is responsible for all the arrangements and textures.

"I initially wrote it envisioning a '50s-influenced record - somewhere between doo-wop and early rock-and-roll - and that's how I was planning on producing it," Strause said. "And I sat on it for a while and just became less excited about putting the time into producing it myself after having a little bit of distance from it and decided to give it to Pat Stolley to produce.

"He said that as long as I gave him full control production-wise, he would record it. I've been a big fan of his music for a really long time - since I was 16, I've been obsessed with his music - so it seemed like the right time to give up control ... which is something I haven't done."

It helped that both men were familiar with the centuries-old manifesto Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a touchstone work for people interested in alchemy and an inspiration for the record and (obviously) its title. The link is clear in the first words of "The Creeping Heart": "Water and the air and the earth make a tree. / Magic and the mind and the fire make me."

"Lyrically," Strause said, "it's a break-up record, but also the break-up I was going through at the time tied into mystical studies, and getting into spiritual alchemy. I was just noticing overlap in these different concepts, how I was trying to get through this relationship stuff while I was also learning how to transform as a human being spiritually. Juxtapositions and tying those things together became kind of the goal in writing that album."

Handing it off, Strause said, was an acknowledgment of how "involved" his original idea would have been to execute. "I was realizing that if I wanted moments to sound like The Platters, I was going to have to get a big string section together. I just started realizing how it was a lot of stuff I hadn't done before, and I knew it was going to be a really big challenge. ... The biggest production job [on one of his albums] took 10 years to finish the record, and I didn't want that to happen. ...

"The idea of working with Pat seemed ... equally exciting and less work."

Initially, he said, he tried to describe to Stolley his aims for Chymical Wedding. But "once he started talking to me about what his ideas were, I realized that it was going to be beyond what I had thought it was going to be. I wasn't even going to be able to predict what each song was going to sound like, so I just let go."

Stolley wrote in an e-mail: "I saw it as a chance to have some real fun and twist Brooks' material around. I basically just listened to each song and imagined what I wanted to hear. If I couldn't do the part, I'd get someone to play."

Strause said of the process: "Initially I just gave him demos that I recorded in my bedroom ... and he listened to them for a while and started having me come to the Quad Cities for four-hour chunks of time. And I would just record guitar, vocals - usually at the same time - to a click track or a drum machine, and then I would go. And then the next time that I would come, he'd give me a mix with all of the things that he'd added. He brought in other musicians while I wasn't there and made the record like he would make his own records. ...

"The chords, the structure of the songs is all me. All of the layers, all of the fleshed-out sound, that's pretty much Pat."

There were surprises, Strause said. "When I had written the songs, I really didn't hear any electronic sounds in them" - the synthesizers and drum machines that Stolley added. "It wouldn't have occurred to me to put those sounds in those songs. ...

"That's why the collaboration happened, and why it worked. I was willing to give up that control. ... I knew it was going to be something ... that I wouldn't have made on my own."

Yet Strause added that even though he and Stolley never discussed his overarching vision for his catalog, they ended up of like minds: "When I first heard the mixes that Pat had done and heard what he was doing with the record, there was overlap with the record I was working on at the time."

Much of Chymical Wedding is alluring and easily accessible, with Stolley's arrangements and Strause's warm voice drawing listeners in. Opener "Good World" could have come from the 1960s, with a synchronized rhythm in the drums, guitars, and chorus vocals. "Bridge Over Nothing" and "Hearts" have some swinging country influence, while "Really" is straight-ahead pop rock.

But "The Creeping Heart" announces the arrival of the bluntly foreign, with Strause singing over a throbbing, subdued low end and click-heavy percussion, with minimal echoing of the vocal melody in ghostly keyboards. A break near the end augments the core instrumentation with guitar, and each element serves with purpose.

"Time Slayer" has an undeniable groove, but it's also coarse and kid-like, giving the impression of a demented circus tune.

"Undead Ends" is a love song of salvation until its final line, and Stolley foreshadows the closing turn with downcast reverb guitar and quavering keys that give it an unsteady solemnity from the outset. The album might be as much Stolley's as Strause's, but the producer has clearly and thoughtfully digested the material before putting his stamp on it.

The result is an often bright treatment of darkness. Iowa City's Little Village magazine summarized the album well: "The tension between what is wished for and what exists drives these songs. Strause's voice - a reedy baritone that wavers subtly, accented at times by a purring of vocal fry - is the perfect vehicle to express an uncertain vacillation between belief and disillusionment."

Photo by Laura Heath

Mining the Uncomfortable

Just as Strause is trying to push himself in his work, he's also trying to be confrontational with listeners. And it's not just the lamb blood and real fur.

"With my songs," he said, "I don't do a lot of storytelling usually. I'm kind of describing aspects of life, or trying to draw pictures and perspectives that I have, or can have. Just to widen other people's perspectives. Just to start a conversation, to make people think about things."

And that's especially true of his folk/rock opera The Lamentable Tragedy of Butch Strange, whose narrative thread sounds true to the last word of the title.

"It's about a serial killer named Butch Strange who loves to murder women," Strause said. "He goes out into the night, he's singing about how that's what he lives for. ... Then this bug starts speaking to him in an alley and offers him three gifts, and it's about the change that he goes through while receiving those three gifts."

If that sounds a bit silly, Strause has a serious purpose. "I'm attracted to a lot of dark concepts, because I think they're under-explored. I think people let fear dictate their actions - at least frequently. If you explore something, it quells that fear to some extent. So I guess I use a lot of those dark concepts to inoculate myself against them." And he sometimes uses horror and fantasy to dig around in those areas.

More specifically, he said, Butch Strange is intended to question whether people seen as monsters can rescue their humanity - even a little bit. "If you think about the shooting that just happened [in Oregon], and the shootings that have been happening - a very modern issue - it's something that's hard to approach with compassion [for the shooter] a lot of the time, which is very compelling to me. ... I wanted to explore that and see if I could depict the most horrifying, despicable character that I could think of and see if I could give him any kind of redemption. ...

"It's hard to say if I did. ...

"When I've seen various people like that on the news, I think: What would make somebody do that? There have been several times that I've thought: What circumstances could have happened in my life where I would have turned into a monster like this? Are there things that could have happened to me that would have brought me to that place? Usually, I can think of something where it's like, 'Maybe. Maybe that would have done it.' That was really interesting for me to explore. I don't think there are a lot of people who would admit that - that those people tend to be a creation of their circumstances. ...

"Philosophically, I like the devil's-advocate mentality. I want to talk about things people are not comfortable talking about. ... Those are things ... I strive to write about, because so many songs are just about the same things over and over again. You can write a nice love song, but there are thousands of nice love songs. [If] you write some kind of weird, nasty love song, maybe you're hitting on something original."

Brooks Strause & the Gory Details will perform on Friday, October 23, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; Bedroom Shrine and US-MODE open, and admission to the 9 p.m. all-ages show is $10.

For more information on Brooks Strause, visit

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